When Phil Neff got to heaven he found it was pretty much like high school. This surprised him on a number of fronts but mostly because he hadn’t liked high school and was not happy about spending eternity in a replica. Wasn’t heaven supposed to be pure bliss? Further, this school was set, if that’s the right word, in the 1950s. While he had to admit that’s when he was a student – he died in pain at 75 so was not sorry to leave the earth – the 1950s had lost their charm for him decades before. There was a time when he could Rock Around the Clock, and a time after that when he enjoyed thinking about when he could Rock Around the Clock, but that had long since passed. Like many people who vaguely believed in God and an afterlife, during his terrestrial years he’d now and then wondered what heaven could be like, since most religions had trouble imagining details. His thoughts centered around loss of anxiety rather than physical pleasure. He’d not had much physical pleasure in his later years, and had little in high school either, at least of the sexual kind, so he wouldn’t mind it if he got a bit in the celestial sphere, but still he had to question a 1950s heaven that was so specific, so earth-bound, so, well, banal. And if I’m questioning it, he thought, how can it be heaven? There was a contradiction for you. He resolved to ask someone in authority as soon as he had the chance. Who would that be? Did they have a corporate structure like the Bank of America? If God is the Chairman of the Board, he thought, I want to talk to the CEO.
He was guided by a girl called Bob who looked about seventeen and was about that interesting. To make matters worse, she was dressed as a cheerleader. Blue pinafore with a pleated, flared skirt, white shirt, white socks and shoes. There was a white pompom fixed above her very nice ass, like a Playboy bunny’s. She was pretty in a wholesome way and had a fleshiness that suggested she might develop a stout figure. But then nothing developed in heaven, did it? Eternity meant nothing changed. Which was a little frightening to Phil. Despite Bob’s palpable corporeality, the strangest thing was that Phil couldn’t see his own body, so he assumed he didn’t have one, though he was feeling all the normal emotions and sensations. He pinched himself hard: he felt the touch but no pain. So he didn’t know if to the others in heaven he was also seventeen. And were they human souls like him or part of the staff? He asked Bob about this and she told him to be patient: everything would be explained at orientation.
Meanwhile she gave him a tour of the building and grounds. It all looked a lot like his old school in San Francisco, wide neon-lit corridors noisy with metal lockers and chatter, classrooms with thirty students, a small gym in the basement that smelled of lavender, which was either a mistake on the part of the organizers or a cover-up of something, a basketball court outside and a patch of grass where some kids were eating brownbag lunches. Like Bob the girls were dressed in wide skirts in primary colors, bobby socks, their hair mostly in ponytails that bounced when they walked. The boys all wore brown cords and brown letterman’s sweaters with white trim, cardigan style, a large white H sewn on the chest. Most of it looked routine, agreeing with his memories and Happy Days. Bob pointed to the boys’ toilet, which had a definite lavender aroma coming from it, but he didn’t have to go. That surprised him as well, since for years he had to pee every eighty minutes by the clock. If he had a body, then, it must have been glorified just like the priests had claimed it would. At least his prostate had.
They went into a classroom, “just to see the fun we have here,” Bob said. The teacher at the blackboard looked a lot like Sister Mary Joan Patrice who taught him Latin. He hated Latin class. She wasn’t wearing a habit but nuns didn’t wear them anymore, he’d heard, so that didn’t prove anything, and with her head un-winkled he wasn’t sure if it really was the same person. She had on a tight angora sweater that accented large breasts. In school he thought about girls’ breasts much of the time but never about nuns’ breasts; he would have been surprised if they had them. But here was old Joan Patrice displaying her equipment, and he was shocked that he found her sexy. He sat at the back and at first didn’t understand what she was saying. Then she asked a question, something about the ablative case, and seemed to look at him so he answered, though he hadn’t thought about the ablative since 1954. She smiled and tossed her long black hair to the side. “Very good, Phil, you’re a smart boy,” she said. “I’m glad you’re here again. See me after class in private, if you know what I mean,” and then she actually winked. It was so obvious it was embarrassing but none of the students paid attention as they went on with the lesson, which was on Caesar’s first Gallic campaign. He couldn’t understand why they’d be concerned with Caesar in heaven, but he had a lot to learn.
“You really impressed Bill,” Bob said in the hallway. “Be sure to see her later.”
“Bill is her name? Not Sister Mary Joan Patrice?”
“We’re pretty informal here. We offer a number of Latin courses in heaven. The other Latin teacher is also good looking. She’s called Dave.”
“Do you all have boys’ names?”
“Are they boys’ names?”
“They are on earth,” Phil said.
“I guess we don’t worry about that much, those gender things.” She said it with the disdain reserved for mosquitoes and maggots.
Phil Neff was worried, though. They went to the cafeteria for lunch and saw that every single one of the girls was gorgeous, most of them blonde, all with good figures and inviting smiles. They studied him with interest as he approached the food line. It was not unpleasant, but in his experience unique. The boys were a different matter. They looked ordinary from a distance but up close all suffered from material defects: some had skin trouble, some had noses too large or legs too short or distorted features or were too fat or too thin or going bald. One boy, who must have been about fifteen, had a hunchback, another was missing a foot, a third shook all over and walked sideways reciting what sounded like Portuguese but might have been Latin in a Portuguese accent. The girls paid no attention to the male crowd, though they continued to steal glances at Phil. He was about to seek an explanation when Bob pointed to the food. “Hamburger, chilli dog, French fries, cheese fries, chocolate malt, ice-cream sundae, RC Cola, Eskimo Pie? You can have as much as you want and it’s free.” It looked universally revolting, filled with grease and sugar and cholesterol. He wasn’t hungry and still didn’t know if he had a body to put lunch into. Bob tried to allay his concern. “Don’t be bothered about health issues,” she said, “you’re in heaven. You can eat and eat and never get sick. So what would you like?”
Suddenly he was alert to the possibility that this wasn’t heaven after all but some subtle torture the devil had devised to make the damned think they were in heaven. The last hours of his life were a blur of bright hospital lights and invasive machinery and he had no clear sense of when he died or what happened after. He couldn’t remember any welcome ceremony at this end, no pearly gates, no Bach cantata. When he regained consciousness it was just like waking up in the morning with the same mind as before, and he was already standing outside the high school building with Bob. What proof did he have? Satan is the ultimate deceiver, it was said, and by now had a lot of practice.
He asked for a small glass of sparkling water and was given a 32-ounce paper cup of Dr Pepper with ice by a gum-chewing boy with severe acne who was humming “Come on-a My House” in the Rosemary Clooney version. None of which eased the fear he might be in hell. His guide took nothing and led him to a table apart from the other students. The drink tasted as terrible as the food looked. Bob was disappointed he didn’t want lunch when such great dishes were on offer. “You don’t like the drink either, do you,” she said.
He blurted out what was on his mind. “How do I know this is really heaven?”
He could see her brown eyes working the question over. “Oh, it’s heaven all right, you can be sure of that.”
“But how can I be sure? I have only your word and nothing here seems heavenly to me.”
“Well, what is heavenly, after all? It depends.”
“Depends on what?”
“Don’t you trust me?” She seemed more incredulous than offended and wrinkled her nose in a cute way. “I’m here to help you, that’s my only job. Nobody’s complained before.”
“But all this fifties stuff – why should it interest me?”
“Didn’t you go to high school in the fifties?”
“Yes, but why chose high school at all?”
“Oh, I don’t know anything about that. That’s management level, I’m cheerleader level.”
“Who can I ask, then? Somebody must know why this is happening. If it is happening.”
“I think they go over that at orientation.” She stood up. “We can go there now, if you don’t want to eat.”
“Wait a minute, surely you know something. Don’t I go before God for judgment?”
She looked at a corner of the room. He followed her gaze but saw nothing there. At last she said, “I’m not authorized to discuss that.”
“At least tell me if God is here. Am I to achieve union with God, as promised?”
“Promised? Who promised?”
“The religions, on earth.” He wasn’t sure all religions promised that but the main Christian ones did, and certainly the Muslims with their suicide deals, so he felt on solid ground.
“Well,” Bob said, drawing out the word in a charming Alabama way, “they say all kind of things down there. Anyway what does that mean, union with God?”
“Not sure. Praising God and singing Hosanna in the Highest? Or just perfect happiness, unalloyed by doubt.”
Unalloyed by doubt stumped her. “Discussing God is beyond my ability,” she said, and sat down again to consider the problem. “Tell you what.” She pulled up her knees, set her heels on the edge of the chair, and hugged her legs in an adolescent way. Again he could see her thinking, her pert chin resting on top of her knees. The back of her skirt dropped under her and Phil could see her bare thighs all the way up to her thin little white panties. In high school it would have made his day but here it only confused him. “I can get you into a theology class, if you want,” Bob said at last. “It starts this afternoon at four but it’s in Latin. Could you handle that? I know I couldn’t, I only got as far as amo, amas, amat. Would you like me to enroll you?”
Since he was supposedly in heaven, studying theology seemed redundant. He was about to say so when the bell rang and she hustled him out to the corridor.
Phil Neff worked for three decades for the Bank of America in San Francisco. After college he’d started with a life insurance company but wasn’t good at selling the inevitability of death, then he tried managing a supermarket but had no patience with the stupidity of the staff or the cupidity of the customers. So he moved to banking, working his way up from a teller in the Marina branch to corporate headquarters downtown. His career wasn’t distinguished but he did his job, responded well to responsibility, and was reasonably compensated. The bank grew enormously in those years and eventually he became a senior executive in the acquisitions division, which was ironic since the bank itself was soon threatened by a series of hostile takeovers. Phil found the ensuing stress difficult and he developed heart trouble. His performance was also affected by a number of changes in federal banking regulations, more than one replacement of the chief executive, and a confused set of corporate priorities at a time when banks were becoming much more than simple deposit and lending agencies.
His last boss, Jude Jackson – JumpinJack, they called him because he shifted his weight from foot to foot when angry – didn’t like him at all. After a disastrous meeting with a potential investor that Phil had chaired, Jumpin Jack had enough. “Your trouble, Neff,” he said in public, “is that no matter how you’re dressed you look like you’re selling something you already know nobody wants.” Before that incident Phil would have been happy to retire, but he hung on another year out of spite. When he handed in his papers Jumpin Jack was so delighted he added a bonus to the bye-bye package. Phil also was given an engraved Rolex, though it wasn’t gold.
He was sixty-three. He and his wife Dot moved down the Peninsula to a pleasant small house in San Mateo to be near their children and grandchildren, who were scattered around the south and east Bay. He took up golf, went fly fishing in the Sierras, bought a small RV and toured the northwest and Canada with Dot, did time-share in Baja, made careful investments, helped his children, played with their children, settled into age with energy and grace. By any sense of justice in the universe, whether or not guarded by a benevolent divinity, he didn’t deserve what followed: Dot died miserably of liver cancer, an accident on the Bayshore Freeway put his daughter in a wheelchair, a kitchen fire destroyed his house along with a century of family photos and documents. Then he had a heart attack that led to the discovery of a brain tumor that killed him in useless agony.
Despite the disasters that had overtaken him, he had maintained belief in Jesus as his Savior. So why was he sitting in this depressing assembly room listening to the principal drone on about rules and regulations? Being sent back to school seemed the opposite of a reward. Perhaps this wasn’t hell but a kind of purgatory where he had to atone for his sins before entering heaven. The principal certainly looked purgatorial, dressed in a greyish tweed suit and blue blouse with severe collar, stern mouth, penetrating grey eyes. She called herself Mrs Himmel and was as attractive as the other women he’d seen, though she must have been in her sixties. The standing microphone squeaked with feedback but the principal had little of substance to say other than that she expected all students to behave correctly while they were having “afterlife fun.” She invited everyone to come to the sock hop that evening in the gym, which would be decorated for the event by the cheerleader society. She asked for questions; Phil raised his hand and stood up.
“Mrs Himmel,” he said, “I’m Phil Neff, new arrival.”
“Hello, Phil,” she said, “you’ve very welcome to the school.”
“I appreciate that, but could you please tell me why I’m here? I didn’t particularly like high school and it doesn’t strike me as heaven.”
She was flustered for a moment and conferred with a young female assistant holding a clipboard. Back at the mike she said, “According to our records you didn’t enjoy high school because you didn’t join wholeheartedly in the fun. You had no good friends, no extracurricular activities – all you did was study and fool around with cars. Now you have the chance to make up for that.”
“Ah, so this is purgatory. This is where I purify my soul.”
“No, there is no purgatory, I thought everyone knew that. This is heaven.”
“With respect, Mrs Himmel, high school has never been heaven. Why would heaven be modeled on high school?”
“You’ve got it backwards, Phil, as you often did in life, apparently. High school on earth is modeled on heaven, and this option is made available for poor souls like you.”
“If it’s an option, I’d like to order a different one. Have you got a menu?”
“Don’t be frivolous, child. It’s an option for us, not you. You’re here and you must enjoy it. You’ll find out there is a great deal to enjoy.”
“Who decided where I would go? God?”
She looked flustered again. “I’m not authorized to discuss that.”
“Aren’t you management level?”
“Only middle management. There is a theology class” – the mike squeaked and Phil interrupted.
“I know, four o’clock. But Bob said I’d be told about God and judgment at orientation.”
Mrs Himmel looked displeased. “And who is Bob?”
“My cheerleader, she’s right here.” But she wasn’t and he hadn’t seen her leave.
“Look, Phil,” the principal said in a superior tone, “I know it’s confusing at first, but just relax and you’ll get used to it. You’ll find it’s not so bad. Actually it’s quite nice here if you get the correct school spirit. You can do what you want after classes. We have many interesting activities, Latin club, chess club, wood shop, regular dances where you select the records – I like the Platters myself, especially “My Prayer,” he’s got a wonderful falsetto. We have a homecoming queen contest, a soda fountain, basketball, baseball. We don’t approve of football but we have Phys. Ed. and even Home Ec. So be a good boy and enjoy!”
She started to walk off but Phil called her back. “One more question, please.” She returned to the mike reluctantly. “Assuming I’m a good boy, how long will I be here?”
Now she looked exasperated and spoke as if to a recalcitrant child. “Time has no meaning in eternity, as someone raised a Catholic should know. So the question is absurd.” She left the stage and was replaced by the basketball coach, a woman in her twenties, good looking of course, who called herself Joe and enthusiastically encouraged all the boys to come to try-outs after school. If there’s no time in eternity, Phil wanted to say, how can there be after-school sports and evening dances? The coach nattered on but Phil hated basketball, another one of the things he’d been bad at in school, and stopped listening.
Bob, whom he’d grown to like and rely on, had not reappeared. He looked around the room for the first time: all the students in the assembly were boys, and they maintained the ugliness tradition. There was not a girl in sight except for basketball Joe on stage. Two seats down a skinny guy with thinning red hair and bad skin was listening intently. Phil got his attention and asked him how long he’d been there. The boy stared in his direction for a few seconds then turned away as if he weren’t there. “Hey, you,” Phil said, “I’m talking to you.” The boy continued to ignore him so Phil moved over and shook him by the shoulder, at which point he vanished. Not in a flash, more like a slow melt, like ice cream in a bowl on a hot day, though there was no pool of liquid on the floor. Phil shook the boy in front of him and he melted as well.
“Stop that down there,” Joe said loudly into the mike. “Do you want to get into trouble?”
How can you get into trouble in heaven, Phil wondered, but before he caused a scene Bob had mysteriously reappeared and grabbed his hand, “Don’t say any more,” she whispered, and led him out into the open air. Phil asked where she’d been. “Mrs Himmel doesn’t like me,” she said. “When you started with the awkward questions I flew out so I wouldn’t antagonize her.”
“She said she didn’t know any Bob.”
“Oh, she knows me all right, the old bitch. She may not know me by that name, though.”
“You have other names?”
He had to admit that was true; on earth he’d been Philip Charles Neff, Junior, and had been called The Second by his father, P. C. at work, Dada at home, and Smellfoot in the high school gym locker room. “What are your other names, then?”
Bob did her cute-and-cagey act and said, “They’re secret names, I can’t reveal them. We call them Cellnomens. Stands for Celestial Names in Latin.” Now she seemed to be chewing gum. “Bill says it’s not good Latin – I think the language got corrupted over the centuries.”
“Centuries? So you do have time here.”
“No, no, earth centuries, I mean.”
Phil got another whiff of lavender, but before he could reflect on it he was at the sock hop. They are right about timelessness, he thought; though events seemed to occupy what he thought of as passing minutes, there was nothing in between, no waiting. Since he wasn’t going to basketball, he was immediately at the dance, his hand in Bob’s, she now dressed in a tight green sweater and a long pleated skirt with appliqued pink roses. Her face was shiny with a thin layer of perspiration. Apparently they had been dancing, and he heard the final chords of Elvis singing “Hound Dog.” Her shoes were off, and since he could feel his feet sliding easily across the floor he guessed his were too.
“Let’s take a break,” Phil said, pretending to be tired of the jitterbug. They got bottles of Coke with straws and sat at the edge of the gym. “Bob, I have another silly question. Do I have a body? I can feel you holding my hand but I can’t see my hand. Or any of the rest of me.”
“Oh, yeah,” she said, “I was supposed to tell you. You have a body we can see, just as you can see me, but you can’t see yourself yet. You have to wait until you’re spiritualized. It doesn’t happen right away.”
“You get a body when you become a spirit? That sounds crazy. When does it happen? Mrs Himmel didn’t go over this at orientation.”
“It’s something like when you’re ready, it will happen. I can’t explain it very well – cheerleaders are not really authorized. By the way, an old friend of yours has been dying to see you. Good joke, huh? Here she is now. This is Tom.”
Tom solidified before him in the ideal shape of his one true high school love, Toni Giannini. She looked perfect, if slightly more mature than seventeen. Brownish hair with natural highlights, athletic figure, turned-up nose, blue eyes, inviting lips. She had mostly ignored him in school but here she was with her lovely smile. “Hello, Phil,” she said, and put her hand on his shoulder, “it’s been a while.”
“Are you really Toni? I can hardly believe it.”
“Yes, I’m Toni. They give us new names here, you’ll be getting one too when you get the right school spirit. Meanwhile I have something for you.” She held onto his shoulder, placed her left hand on his head and reached for his right eye with her thumb. “Have to complete the circuit.” He pulled back a little in alarm. “Don’t worry, it won’t hurt.” When she gently touched his eye he instantly understood everything that had happened to her in the last sixty years. Her misjudged first marriage, her children, her affairs, her unsatisfactory career as a teacher, her second marriage at age forty, her travels, thoughts and dreams, what she’d read, favourite movies, what she loved in life, what she feared. He felt something going out of him at the same time, probably the similar information transferred to her, as if they’d spent a month together doing nothing but talking about themselves. It was a remarkable experience, deeply emotional in human terms, yet oddly objective, suffused with a suspicion that while this was interesting it didn’t matter as much as it seemed. Despite that, he was in love again.
When she removed her hands he found himself in bed with her. She was naked. He didn’t know if he was, but he certainly felt an erection. Not being able to see it, he imagined it was huge, though he wondered why in heaven he still hadn’t conquered size anxiety. He heard Al Hibbler singing “Unchained Melody”:
Oh, my love, my darling,
I’ve hungered for your touch
A long, lonely time.
Had they made love, or were they about to? It didn’t matter – he felt wonderful beside her, all his frustrated sexual desires from those days suddenly fulfilled. Her skin was tanned and soft, a whisper of down along her spine. Was that lavender perfume she was wearing? He whispered, “I love you, Toni, I always have.”
“I love you too, but you have to call me Tom.”
He entered her, or it seemed as if he did, and she responded, but that was over in an instant too. He hadn’t come, or had he? Perhaps that didn’t matter either. It was as if sex were always beginning and never ending. If this was the happiness heaven could provide, he’d take it no matter how often he got detention for cutting Latin class. Then he remembered he was supposed to see Sister Joan Patrice after school and worried that he would get into some kind of jealous triangle. Tom knew what he was thinking and said, “Don’t be concerned about that. You’re allowed to sleep with as many girls as you want, as often as you want. I won’t mind.”
“But I only want you.”
She smiled indulgently. “You’re new, but I suspect you’re a fast learner.”
“Toni, Tom, I need to ask you – can you see my body?”
“Yes, of course. A lovely body.”
“Am I old?”
“No time here, remember. You’ll be perpetually young, per omnia secula seculorum, through all the ages of ages. It’s different in the different sections. If you were in college heaven you’d be twenty-one, or in career heaven, usually thirty-five and rising fast. In marriage heaven you’d be forty with two charming teen-aged children, in political heaven, sixty and a senator at least.”
“There are other heavens? They all sound like ideas for soap operas.”
“As many heavens as there are souls, each individually designed. Myself, for example, I’m in sports heaven. You remember I was always good at basketball. I’m an NBA star forward.”
“In the actual NBA?”
“In the real NBA, not the one on earth, which is the facsimile. Last season I played for the Boston Celtics but was traded to Chicago in a complicated four-way deal. Scored fifteen points last night.”
“Great, but in basketball heaven can you ever play badly or lose a game?”
“Oh, yes, that’s part of the sport. But when we lose I’m never unhappy about it. Because it’s heaven.”
“But if you’re in sports heaven, how can you be here with me in high school heaven?”
Tom thought about this for a few seconds too long. At last she said, “I’m not sure about that, it’s the first time it’s happened. I guess I’m on temporary assignment. Or maybe to you I’m part of high school paradise and to me you’re part of basketball paradise.”
Phil’s head was spinning from her circular logic and he suddenly felt sleepy. Not tired, just sleepy. Immediately he was dreaming of flying at a low altitude over a green sea and then was awake in sunlight, Tom still naked beside him. She was leaning on her elbow and looking at him. “Was I asleep long,” he asked.
“No time here.” She said it automatically, the way you’d say God Bless You after someone sneezed. He looked into her lovely eyes. Something was wrong. He was sure they had been equally blue at the dance, as they had been in life, but one of them now seemed slightly yellow, almost jaundiced. And up close they looked unfocussed, as if she were looking at something beyond him. Then he noticed that her nose was peeling at the tip from sunburn. He reached up gently to tug a piece of peeling skin and she slapped his hand away, suddenly angry. “Stop that!”
Phil sat up quickly. “Who are you,” he said, “Who are you really?” Within a second she melted and immediately formed into a boy he’d seen sitting two rows in front in assembly, his face covered with red pockmarks and splotches. Naked this kid was even uglier. Phil was glad to see the fellow didn’t have a penis – in fact he had no sex at all, and that certainly was confusing.
“Why did you do that,” Tom asked. “We were getting along so well.” The voice was the same, Toni’s voice, but her lilt was gone from it. “We could have been happy together. Now this – this happened because you stopped believing in me.”
Phil was in shock. “What’s that got to do with it? Are you real or not?”
“Of course I’m real,” the young lad said, “but what I really am depends on what you believe.”
“That can’t be true. Some things are real, some things are not. There’s a difference.”
“Maybe in banking, not in heaven. Didn’t you read Shakespeare? Uncertainty of reality and illusion? Why do think we prescribed Macbeth in high school?”
“You mean heaven is only heaven if you believe it is?”
“Of course, belief is everything. Santa Claus, the Second Coming, the Patriot Act.”
“Then heaven is for children.”
“No, childhood is terrible. It’s the state of belief that matters: don’t be a child, become like a child. Why do you think Luke made up that story about shepherds and the Christ child?”
“Made it up?”
“Did you fall for that one, despite your business training? Boy, are you stupid. How did you get here at all?”
“Where else could I have gone? There are other afterlives?”
“You should have gone nowhere, that’s where. That’s where all animae go who can’t figure it out. Nowhere, that’s where you belong.”
“Souls, you idiot. Don’t you remember Latin at all?” Tom rose up and put on a long white shift like a nightshirt. It reached to the floor and had finely worked gold thread at the edge. Maybe it was a ritual garment, like the pictures of John the Baptist in his childhood prayer book. Tom still looked ugly but was no longer young.
Phil had never been more confused. “Who are you people?” His voice had overtones of despair. “Are you angels?”
Tom’s body started to glow; the red splotches on his face turned out to be quite beautiful rose petals tattooed in a Maori way. “There was a desert tribe long ago in earth time who called us that. I forget your name for them.”
“Maybe it was the Palestinians.”
“But what about God,” Phil cried. “Who is he?” He quickly added, “Or she.”
“It’s hard to say. God is not really a person, more of a force.” This reminded Phil of Star Wars and Tom, knowing Phil’s thoughts, said, “A power or energy or dynamism. Perhaps intensity is the best word. It is a gathering of all intensity, making an intensity of intensity. If you can believe in it, of course.”
“And you,” Phil said, “Are you a person?”
“Not exactly. More of a force of the force.”
It might have been Tom’s accent, which was Toni’s accent, but all Phil could think of was a farce of the farce. “You seem real,” Phil said.
“Real to you, yes. To myself not so real. Since I don’t have a self.”
“How did you do that before, putting all of Toni’s memories into my head?”
“It’s just a trick. You could learn it.”
“Were those actually her memories?”
“Enough questions. If you want more answers you can go” –
“Not to the fucking theology class!”
Tom continued quietly. “I was going to say, you can go look inside yourself, since you think you have a self. I’ll tell you this much, though, once you’re here, you’re here. Give up any temporal notions that may linger. It is all now, all in the present, per omnia secula seculorum.”
Phil grabbed Tom’s shoulder in desperation. “But what is the it you speak of?”
“Up to you,” Tom said before he melted. Phil never saw him again, or the Toni he loved.
He slept, or floated over the green sea. The next day – he still thought of eternity in days, and Bob said he could do it for a while if it helped – he had a chat with Mrs Himmel, whose mouth had softened and was showing a bit of cleavage. She assigned him to vocational courses, since he adamantly refused to take Latin, which was part of college prep. He hoped to move on to the trade school section of the building, thinking there was always a need for plumbers. But he did visit the Latin teacher Bill, or Sister Mary Joan Patrice, and the sex was pretty good. They spoke of Vergil and Dante, though what Phil said was mostly bullshit. Sex was good with Bob too, and with a number of other girls who weren’t girls, or boys either. It was surprisingly good with Mrs Himmel. After their first time he asked why she was called Mrs Himmel when all the others had monosyllabic boys’ names. “When we’re alone,” she said, gently stroking his young cheek, “you can call me Max.” Soon he was able to see his body, and liked it. On a whim he tried out for basketball and Joe was impressed. He played center, having in his glorified state grown to six feet five, and developed an imitation of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s sky hook. In fact Jabbar refereed one of Phil’s games against a rival high school. (Phil learned not to question how there could be a rival high school in what was, to all intents and purposes, his personal heaven.) Afterwards they chatted amiably. Phil called him Lew, his name from their youth, though Jabbar said his name was now Bess.
Phil never grew to like school hamburgers. When he suggested they add pasta and salads to the lunch menu, Mrs Himmel complied. He never smelled lavender again. Passing the gym one evening he heard a record of Bill Haley and the Comets, and went in to join another sock hop. The place was decorated beautifully with blue and white crepe paper, with a mirror ball hanging from the ceiling. He took his shoes off, stood around looking at the girls, then approached one with red hair he’d not seen before who called herself Ted. She moved very well. On the floor she said, “You’re Joan, aren’t you?” He smiled and said he must be. “You dance fine, Joan,” Ted said, “but you should relax your spine and shoulders more.” He followed her advice, and found that by applying just the right school spirit he could once again Rock Around the Clock.